Convertible buying guide


Buying a convertible has little to do with practicality and everything to do with enjoying the open-air driving experience. In years past, convertibles were fair-weather-only cars, but modern convertibles require far fewer compromises than the ragtops of yore. Many models can shed their tops in 25 seconds or less, and some convertibles even allow you to raise and lower the top while driving at slow speeds (a nice feature if you’re lowering the top when stopped at a light and the light turns green).

Several convertibles feature a retractable hardtop, a folding metal roof that stows in the trunk at the push of a button. With the top raised, these hardtop models minimize some inherent convertible compromises by providing better insulation from noise and weather, increased interior security, improved visibility, and better resistance to fading and wear than a car with a soft top. But when lowered, they can consume much of the available trunk space.

That said, today’s soft tops are much better insulated against noise and weather, and all now come with glass rear windows instead of the flimsy, scratch-prone plastic windows that were common years ago.

What hasn’t changed is that soft-top convertibles remain more susceptible to break-in and theft than hardtop vehicles. An opportunistic thief with a sharp knife can easily have at the contents of your convertible. Soft-top convertibles also require more diligence to protect them from the elements, and some automakers warn against taking convertibles through automatic car washes with brushes or high-pressure water jets.

Since a car gets much of its structural rigidity from the roof, convertibles require extra bracing to minimize wear-inducing structural flex. Today’s convertibles are better engineered and tend to have more rigid construction, which minimizes body flex and improves handling.

Note that not all convertibles are true convertibles. The Fiat 500C has a full-size sunroof that slides as far back as a convertible top, but the side roof rails always stay fixed in place. This design benefits from added rigidity and a top that can be opened and closed at highway speeds, but it doesn’t deliver the same open-air feel as an ordinary convertible.
Key things to consider

To narrow your choices, decide first how you plan to use the car. Are you looking for a true sports car or a four-seater that happens to have an opening roof? Is this a car that you plan to drive every day or just on sunny weekends? For an everyday car, comfort, convenience, and fuel economy are important considerations. If driving is your passion, the fun quotient might trump practicality.

As always, price is a key factor, and convertibles usually cost significantly more than an equivalent fixed-roof car. If your budget is modest, your choices will be commensurately limited, and a used model may be a good alternative. In the sporty-car arena, you’ll want to look at cars that focus on handling prowess, but for top-down cruising, ride comfort, wind noise, and back seat and trunk space are also important considerations.

The powertrains for convertibles usually range from small four-cylinder engines, as found in the Fiat 500C and Mini Cooper convertibles, up to the powerful V8s in American muscle cars like the Chevrolet Camaro and Ford Mustang. Fuel economy is typically worse with a drop-top than that of the fixed-roof version of the car due to the added weight, and driving with the top down may lower fuel economy even further.

Because top-down driving is the whole point of a convertible, the ease of deploying the top is crucial. Where available, choose a power top with a latch-free design. If the top does have latches, be sure to try them out at the dealerships; some latch designs can easily break fingernails, while others require the strength of Hercules to muscle the top closed. Some power top designs can be raised and lowered when the car is moving at low speeds, a very useful feature. Among those few models with a manual top, some let you undo a latch or two and toss the roof back, while others make you get out of the car and fiddle with the folded roof. Simpler tops are better.
What you’ll spend

Prices range from the low-to-mid $20,000s for small convertibles such as the Fiat 500C and Volkswagen Beetle to well over $100,000 for ultra-luxury performance convertibles like the Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG and the BMW M6. There are plenty of models in the middle price range, too; prices dictate the levels of sportiness, performance and luxury, but not the convertible experience. A $25,000 convertible lets in just as much sunshine a $250,000 convertible. One of the most affordable convertibles on the market, the Mazda Miata, is an enthusiasts’ favorite, and the reasonably-priced Ford Mustang convertible balances muscle, fashion, and four-place seating.

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